Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wifi Liberator and Property


Last summer, when I came back from my home, Korea, I had to stop by the Atlanta Airport to take a connecting flight. I was little bit anxious because I hadn’t checked my email box for about 15 hours. However, when I opened my web browser, I was very surprised to know that I had to pay about 8 dollars to 10 dollars to check my email. The wireless service was being provided by 5 network companies (Boingo, Concourse, SprintPCS, Access, Opti-fi) from $7.95 to $9.99 in daily fares (

The internet has become essential to our lives. In some countries, especially economically developed countries like the U.S., governments acknowledge that broadband Internet service is crucial to their people ( We, especially younger generation, can do nothing without a network. A network is more than just commercial goods. However, the internet is ruled by several providers. For home users and business users, the network is provided with a relatively reasonable price. However, it is true that users have to pay high cost in a public place for just a short time of usage.

So, individual users seek ways to access internet without cost or with low cost. There are several technologies to use/share a network without permission from a corporate network provider. Wifi Liberator, the tool to make an open private wireless node, selected by Ars Electronica 2008, is one of them. Wifi Liberator is “an open-source toolkit for a laptop computer that enables its users to liberate pay-per-use wireless networks and creates an open node that anyone can connect to for internet access”(Gerfried & Christine, 2008). According to Jonah Brucker-Cohen, the developer says that this toolkit is for free access to the internet in a public space.

This open private wireless network by this free-access technology would be very useful for individual internet users who want to share a network with other people and to get free access in a public space. For the whole society’s communication, sharing information among community members, having more chance for using a network is very important. However, this belief for openness of network and free access conflicts with ownership and property matter, because, in most countries, a network is considered as commercial goods.

So, in this paper I will talk about the ownership and property issue for sharing a network among individual users through consideration of Wifi Liberator. Considering this technology could be one case of thinking about values behind network sharing technologies, especially when they are used in a public space.

Value definition - Ownership and property

Ownership is a general right to property. It “entails a group of specific rights, including the right to possess an object, use it, manage it, derive income from it, and bequeath it”(Friedman & Kahn, 2007, p. 1252). According to Friedman and Kahn, the basic concept of a property right about a tangible object is simple. The owner of an object can keep it, use it, let others use it. and give it away (Friedman & Kahn, 2007). However, it becomes complicated when the property right is applied to intangible things like service and technology. Especially, in IT industry, the concept of property is very complicated because the limitation and boundary of the product is blurred. Let’s think about e-mail service. I use Hotmail. The service provider gave me an account with 2GB of capacity on the provider’s server. I can send and receive mails freely and modify the environment as I want. I can make folders and a contact list. The service provider cannot delete or modify my information and settings because they are mine. However, they can change the layout and design of “My” email box even though I don’t want to change it. So, at some point, “My” email box can look strange. The reason that this happens is because I get the right of partial use of the service/technology. The right of possessing technology and the right of using technology is different, and the boundary between the two is also blurred. So we have to be careful to consider the property rights of IT technology.

Usually, when we buy a physical product, we possess everything about the product. However, when we buy a technology, in some cases, we just buy the right of use of the technology but not the technology itself. In this case, the provider of the technology is still the owner. In his article “Toward a Theory of Property Rights”, Harold Demsetz says that “an owner of property right possesses the consent of fellow men to allow him to act in particular ways” (Demsetz, 1967). So, the owner can decide how to split and sell of the product , usage of the product, or right for the product. The buyer or consumer of the technology have rights to use the technology in limitation prescribed by the technology provider. However, the selling practice of the owner should be to the extent that a consumer can consent.

In the case of Wifi Liberator, Individual users and corporate wireless network providers violate each other’s property right according to who owns the network and the extent of property rights for the network usage. Does the use of the technology violate the network provider’s property rights? Can the network provider control everything for the consumer’s use of the network?


Corporate Wireless Network Providers: For using the network, basically, the network providers expect only the user who paid for the service to use the network. They don’t want their paid-user to “make available to anyone outside the premises the ability to use the service”( So, using network sharing technology is considered to violate terms and conditions of the contract between a user and a network provider.

Usually, network providers invest many resources to make the network. They have to develop, buy, and install hardware and software for providing the service. So they would expect to make a profit from the service and have the right to protect their products. Also they expect others in a community not to interfere with their actions for their products (Demsetz, 1967). Using Wifi Liberator has a possibility to interfere with providers’ exercising their property rights by blocking the possible users who would use the network service paying money if they don’t have the technology.

Individual Users: Once paying money for the network and getting an account, a user gets the right to use a certain amount of network. The amount is limited by the service provider. So, in a user’s stance, how to use the network should be up to each user. Sharing their property using Wifi Liberator is not something to violate network provider’s property rights. The technology is just for a small group of people around the paid-user. Also if the user decides to share the network, his/her network quality would be decreased, so using the technology doesn’t mean unlimited sharing for the majority of people.

The ownership of the provider doesn’t mean controlling everything for how to use the network. For this matter, if we only rely on the corporate network providers and their practice, individual users have to spend a lot of money for using networks. In many cases, a user has several devices that need to be connected to the internet. However, the network providers require to be paid for each device ( For example, if you play an online game with an iPhone and check email with a laptop, you have to pay for two lines just for a few clicks and a small amount of packets. So, where are consumers’ rights?

Government: Government has to make regulations for the development and use of certain technology and judge terms and conditions of a certain product and contract to protect each social member’s property rights and for the whole community’s benefit. If the two, corporate network providers and individual internet users, are direct stakeholders, a government would be an indirect stakeholder.

A government has to solve the conflict between the two direct stakeholders’ property rights. It might have to judge where one or both of the two stakeholders violate the other’s property rights. Also, it has to consider whether the wireless network in public space should be considered commercial goods that can assign property rights to certain companies or whether the network should be considered a kind of public utility, sometimes partially. In making regulations, if it is commercial or private goods, it has to more focus on protecting properties of corporate network providers, and if the network has characteristics of public utility, it should be more generous for using technologies to help individuals’ free access.

Works Cited

- Demsetz, H. D.(1967). Toward a Theory of Property Rights. The American Economic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2. 347-359.

- Stocker. G & Schopf. C, (Eds.). (2008). Ars Electronica 2008, Hatje Cantz,

- Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2007). Human values, ethics, and design. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 1241-1266). Lawrence Erlbaum.




No comments: